AZ House Panel Approves Bill To Deny Violently Assaulted Undocumented Immigrants Punitive Damages

In 2005, the Mexican American Legal Defense fund brought a lawsuit on behalf of 16 undocumented immigrants who claimed that an Arizona rancher — Roger Barnett — violently assaulted, detained and threatened them with death. Barnett allegedly told the immigrants in Spanish, “My dog is hungry, and he’s hungry for ass.” Barnett previously bragged about capturing 12,000 undocumented immigrants. ABC’s Nightline quoted Barnett — a self-professed border vigilante — saying that undocumented immigrants are “flooding across, invading the place.” “They’re going to bring their families, their wives, and they’re going to bring their kids. We don’t need them.”

In February 2009, a civil jury ruled in favor of the women plaintiffs. The late Chief Judge John Roll of Arizona, who was killed in last month’s tragic shooting in Arizona, received several death threats as he presided over the trial. A couple of weeks ago, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2009 ruling against Roger Barnett, forcing him to pay about $87,000 in damages to the victims.

This past Wednesday, an Arizona state House panel approved legislation that would prevent anyone who is in this country illegally from collecting punitive damages — even after winning a lawsuit. The East Valley Tribune reports:

A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation designed to benefit one man: Cochise rancher Roger Barnett. The measure would spell out that anyone who is in this country illegally cannot collect punitive damages even after winning a lawsuit.

Voters already approved a constitutional amendment doing precisely that in 2006. But that came nearly two years too late for Barnett who was sued following a 2004 incident when 16 illegal immigrants said the rancher illegally imprisoned them. HB 2191 makes that ballot measure retroactive to the beginning of 2004. If it survives the legislative process — and if it is found legal — the change could save Barnett $60,000, the amount of punitive damages four of the plaintiffs were awarded two years ago. Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said that’s exactly what he has in mind.

When MALDEF won its case earlier this month, MALDEF president Thomas Saenz proclaimed, “[t]his decision vindicates constitutional guarantees for all…Even in Arizona, vigilantes do not have the right to harass and victimize peaceful migrants.” Yet, if HB 2191 becomes law, Barnett’s despicable actions will go largely unpunished.


Kevin G. Rogers, President, Arizona Farm Bureau, has pointed out the approved 2006 ballot measure already says that “for a certain class of people, gross negligence against them can be excused.” Jaime Ferrant of the Border Action Network told the East Valley Tribune that HB 2191 “sets a dangerous precedent.’ Ferrant notes that Barnett has had his day in court and was sentenced. ‘This bill would establish that a certain person, or certain persons, are so important that we must make sure that they get their own set of laws to protect them,’’ Ferrant said.